Jon-Jon Goulian, author of the memoir The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, has only booked a handful of locations outside of New York for his book tour. One of them is Asheville.
"As everyone knows, it's just a cool town," says Goulian. "A man in a skirt: You need a cross-dresser-friendly community." (He'll be going to West Hollywood and San Francisco as well. At his Malaprop's reading event, "the first five guys through the door in a skirt get a free copy" of the book.) But Asheville is special to Goulian because it's where his sister-in-law grew up, where his brother (who now lives in Raleigh) got married in 1995 and where Goulian's friend, singer/songwriter Gary Jules, lives.
Jules (who covered Tears for Fears' "Mad World" for Donnie Darko) grew up the seaside resort town of La Jolla, Calif. So did Robin Wright Penn, Gregory Peck, Raquel Welch, Gore Verbinski … and Goulian, whose adolescent claim to fame was, according to his book: "It is early June 1986. Prom night. I am wearing white tights, black pumps, a black skirt, a red bow tie and red lipstick. And a Viking hat, which I bought for 10 bucks at a costume shop."
In fact, Goulian's personal style — skirts, high heels, makeup and body art, began to evolve when, at the age of 16, he abruptly gave up soccer and scholastic striving and became what he calls "a sexually neutered androgyne."
Skirt (the title a nod to the 1955 Sloan Wilson novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit) is Goulian's account of his journey thus far, from his fairly typical youth (sports, good grades, over-achieving older brothers and a doting family with high expectations) to a seemingly directionless adulthood underscored by a laundry list of phobias. Death and decay, being robbed by cabbies, attacked by junkies, struck by falling stonework or contracting lung cancer from secondhand smoke number among the perspective perils that plague Goulian.
Much of his anxiety stems from well-intentioned relatives — his grandfather passed along a harrowing book about a young man who was murdered in a subway station; his father fed the family a strict low-fat diet to prevent clogged arteries. Young Goulian internalized these worries, but it was his own growing body that created the greatest stress.
"Sometime in 1982, when I was 13 years old, and very close to bucking up the courage to ask either Amy McKnight or Wendy Brazier out on a movie date," he begins in the book's first chapter, he was betrayed on three fronts. His nose grew too big for his face, his legs bowed and he developed a hernia.
While none of these conditions were life-threatening, Goulian began to despise his appearance, which led to a lifelong pursuit of hiding his perceived faults. "Wearing this stuff gave me the sense of having physical control over my body," he says. "By wearing high heels I became taller. I could mask the bow of my legs by wearing bellbottom pants or skirts. You lose your hair but you can draw attention away from your head by wearing low necks and not wearing ties. Clothing was not just about controlling people's reactions to me but controlling for my own sake, what I look like in the mirror." (Eventually he abandoned a short-lived career as a law clerk because of his belief that menswear made him ugly.)
Goulian is a charming character, and his outcast story has heart-wrenching and heartwarming moments alike ("I didn't want to write a misery memoir," says the author). But for such sensational subject matter, Goulian's story (for which, The New York Observer reported, he received $750,000 from publisher Random House) falls somewhat flat.
The book begins and ends with Goulian receiving, as an adult, a letter he mailed to himself when he was 7 years old. The young Goulian asks his future self what he's done with his life: It's a question Goulian's loving-but-increasingly-concerned father often asks as well. "You seem to be in a chronic state of indecision," the Goulian patriarch writes. This indecision includes dating and sexuality, too. One chapter details Goulian's distaste for sex; at another point he writes that he has "trouble sustaining a romantic relationship for more than 45 minutes." But there's no a-ha moment, no trauma that explains Goulian's continual shrinking from life. There are long passages of analysis but no great epiphanies.
Yes, Goulian's descriptions of his outfits ("halter tops and stirrup pants from Wet Seal, and a pair of furry Ugg boots," "pink lipstick, a pink halter top, five-inch heels and a long pink skirt") are fun to read. But he doesn't emerge as a rockstar or a designer of men's skirts or a Boy George for the new millennium. Instead, he spends increasing amounts of time in solitude on his grandparents’ rural Vermont property.
Hopefully Skirt is the start of Goulian's better-late-than-never blooming. If it doesn’t lead to storming the courtroom in stilettos, at least another book may follow. Goulian says he has nothing in the works at the moment but "it's hard to imagine there won't be" a follow-up.
As for his parents (who, at press time, had yet to read the final version), "They were so worried about where my next meal was coming from," says Goulian. "They're happy I put my intelligence to good use. They're happy I did something."
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Jon-Jon Goulian
what: Author of The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt
when: Saturday, May 28 (7 p.m., free. malaprops.com)